Netflix has a new global hit – South Korean high school zombie show All of Us Are Dead swept away all competition on the streaming service in February. We’re All Dead racked up over 360 million viewing hours in its first ten days after a January 28and release, according to official figures from Netflix. This compares to 510 million hours watched for Squid Game last year over the same ten-day period. All of Us Are Dead did particularly well given that the American entertainment press gave it almost no coverage. What kind of asks the question. Why not?
As a South Korean media scholar, the hype of Squid Game in the American entertainment sphere truly caught me off guard. It’s not that I think Squid Game is particularly bad (although I’ve received my fair share of hate mail for giving it a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but rather that the series’ unsubtle metaphors for class consciousness are not particularly unusual in the South. Korean media culture, although it is the main topic of discussion for its cross-cultural appeal. Looking back, I’m pretty sure the main reason Squid Game has garnered so much attention is because the show’s distinctive visuals translate very well into thumbnail form. Let’s face it, thumbnail appeal is how most people decide what to watch on Netflix.
Besides the angle of capitalist criticism, the positive press about South Korea’s political and artistic success has shaped the conversation on Squid Game. There were plenty of reflections on the successful agitation for democracy in 1987 and then again in 2017, as well as reminders of how Parasite conquered the zeitgeist of 2019 in the same way. It seemed inevitable that another South Korean cultural asset would take the world by storm. Still, with All of Us Are Dead, it’s happening, but there’s not a word for resurgence.
The main culprit for this is just gender. Zombies have passed, finally, likely thanks to a combination of The Walking Dead and Zack Snyder. The genre has been almost as popular in South Korea as it is in the US, with movies like Train to Busan and the first season of Kingdom getting decent international attention. We’re All Dead is decidedly low taste compared to these more semi-pretentious treatments of class consciousness and palace politics. But the fact that All of Us Are Dead is a show about high school kids only adds to the zombie overload factor. Critics assume that the creators have, by default, sanitized any programming about children, as children are also usually the typical target audience. Yet, in a somewhat hilarious twist, guidance-obsessed parents probably won’t let their kids watch All of Us Are Dead at all just because it’s TV-MA.
All of Us Are Dead also suffers from the fact that it’s truly an international hit – it’s popular primarily in markets other than the United States. All of Us Are Dead was the number one drama in the US market for exactly one day, February 4.and. American media editors tend to view American media as the center of the universe, everything else a random aberration, even in the face of our declining relevance. Netflix’s greatest strength remains its strong lineup of internationally produced and licensed entertainment, simply because of the sheer variety it offers.
South Korea is also not the only such region to produce popular shows around the world. Spanish series Money Heist is massive, with the sum of its five seasons eclipsing even Squid Game by far in terms of hours watched. Ambitious sources are also not much help in spreading this kind of talk. In the case of All of Us Are Dead, we’re definitely looking at the dark side of high school. The virus exists in part because a helpless teacher was trying to find a chemical solution to school bullying, after long watching the relevant authorities cover up all the abuse. In one particularly dark scene, a suicidal girl with unwanted photos of herself online casually remarks, observing the apocalypse from a relatively safe vantage point, that she is an outsider again and hopes that everything the world will die.
For the most part, All of Us Are Dead sticks to a core of mostly friendly students. But then Squid Game also gets disproportionate credit for its second episode which takes place entirely outside of the core concept of the death game, despite the connection Joseon Hellworld and Squid Game Hellworld only metaphorically and not verbatim. At least with All of Us Are Dead, the strained relationships between the students before the zombie outbreak are integral to and directly inform their survival strategies afterward. In this way, Netflix mistimed All of Us Are Dead for Americans for another reason. There is strong pressure again for in-person learning, despite the pandemic. And no one in professional management classes who take that position wants to be reminded that high school was a war zone even before a malicious virus started killing people.